The Story of Harley Quinn: How a '90s Cartoon Character Became an Icon

The creators and voice behind the iconic character look back at her surprising history: "She was always intended to be a one-shot character in just one episode."
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Harley Quinn was meant to be nothing more than a one-episode character when she made her debut on Batman: The Animated Series in September 1992.

Introduced as the brassy new henchperson to The Joker (Mark Hamill), she initially received a mixed response from fans and one of her co-creators wasn't convinced she should even return to the airwaves.

But from those humble beginnings, Harley Quinn grew to become one of the most popular female comic book characters of all time — first giving The Joker a partner that would change his character forever — and then moving on to become both a feminist icon and merchandising phenomenon, a character who has spanned cartoons, comic books, videogames and now the big screen, with Margot Robbie stepping into the role for Suicide Squad.

Harley Quinn's surprising origin story began when writer Paul Dini was sick at home and happened to catch an episode of the soap opera Days of Our Lives on TV. Dini recognized Arleen Sorkin, an old friend from their college days in Boston, playing a harlequin in a dream sequence … and it got him thinking.

"SHE WAS ALWAYS INTENDED TO BE A ONE-SHOT CHARACTER"

It's 1992 and Paul Dini has left Warner Bros. after writing for shows such as Tiny Toon Adventures, to work on other projects, but he's been asked to contribute scripts on a freelance basis for Batman: The Animated Series by executive producer Alan Burnett.

Paul Dini, Harley Quinn co-creator: One of the scripts I wrote was "Joker's Favor." As I was putting together the story, I thought, "What about giving The Joker a girl in the gang this time and referencing the Adam West series?" They had the Riddler, Joker, Penguin with their own henchgirls. I was friends with Arleen Sorkin, and I thought about a character kind of like her persona at the time, which was the snappy, wisecracking blonde. I was home sick and had the TV on, and there she was on Days of Our Lives playing a jester in a fantasy sequence. I saw her running around in a pied piper outfit, and I thought, "That's kind of cute."  

Bruce Timm, Harley Quinn co-creator: Harley was always intended to be a one-shot character in just one episode. Paul pitched her as a change of pace from all the other henchman that we had for The Joker.

Arleen Sorkin, original voice of Harley Quinn: I knew Paul in college. Those were my top shelf, cute days, where I had everything like a cartoon character. I was young and full of life. The funny thing was, on Days of our Lives it was completely out of character for us to recreate a fairy tale character, but I said something to the showrunner and she made it happen.

Dini: I told Andrea Romano, who was our voice director, that Arleen Sorkin is on TV a lot and she's kind of like this character.  "What do you think about giving her the shot?" Andrea brought her in and Arleen did a great job.  

Timm: Going off of the name, Harley Quinn, as a play on the word harlequin, I did some brief research into harlequin costumes. I took the jester hat and the diamond patterns and the ruffled collar and the little balls and stuff. The thing I immediately freaked out about was classic harlequin costumes are really, really baroque. They have a lot of design on them. I immediately keyed in on that diamond pattern. I said, "I can't put thousands of diamonds on her, because nobody is going to be able to animate that." I just strategically placed them on her costume. For the alternate, red and black color blocking on her costume, there was a classic comics character called Daredevil in the '40s — this was way before the Marvel character — who had a red and black outfit which I thought was a kind of unique motif, so I kind of stole that. And there we were. I wasn't thinking about designing a character for the ages or for a character that would be turned into toys and toothbrushes and purses and stuff for decades. It was just intended to be, "Let's come up with a cool design for this one-shot character."


The Golden Age character Daredevil (from Lev Gleason Publications) partially inspired the look for Harley Quinn

Sorkin: I would sing in the car on the way to work — "Adelaide's Lament" from Guys and Dolls. And when I got there, I was ready. Adelaide from Guys and Dolls is someone I always wanted to play. So it was very easy for me to find Harley's voice. But I made her even more extreme. I also auditioned multiple times for Little Shop of Horrors. And I'd seen Ellen Green's performance. I thought her performance was brilliant, so I wouldn’t be surprised if when I did Harley that some of her inflection came out. 

Timm: When we got the rough footage for that first episode back and we saw her character actually moving in animation and paired up with Arleen's voice and the personality they gave her, it was, "Oh wow. There's something here." It was immediately apparent to everybody. Paul was from the very beginning advocating for us bringing her back and I was a little reluctant. I thought, "Well okay, that's going to kind of shift Joker a bit for what we intended to do with him in the series." Even though we were doing the show for children's television, we really wanted to try to make Joker as serious a threat as possible to Batman. Kind of balance the psychopathic, homicidal nature with the funny clown motifs, so we thought if he had a girlfriend, that kind of humanizes him too much.

Dini: A few months later, we were doing a story called "The Laughing Fish" and The Joker needed a gang again, and we thought, "What if we bring her back?" She was fun and fawned over The Joker and was a willing audience for him. The more we used her for that, the more we had this twisted relationship growing between them, where she idolized him or followed his orders to the letter. That really gave us an interesting dynamic.

Sorkin: To watch Mark Hamill act, I couldn't believe how wonderful he was. Sometimes I forgot to pick up my lines because I would be so busy watching him. Everybody else sat with their headphones on, but he stood. I never saw anything like it. Mark owned that character. It was mesmerizing to watch.

Timm: It did give Mark more flavors to play. His relationship with Harley is obviously very complicated. I couldn't honestly tell you what the Joker's actual true feelings for her are, but there were times when he seemed to be affectionate toward her, or at least he would use her affection as a way of controlling her. It definitely brought different dimensions to The Joker than we had anticipated.

Sorkin: There were a few times when I did things that inspired the character. One was during the L.A. riots in '92. Paul was having a breakdown.There were fires everywhere and we were driving home from the recording studio and it was in deep Hollywood and I just started singing to try to cheer him up. He remembered the song — "Say We're Sweethearts Again" — and put it in the show.

HARLEY AND IVY

A major turning point for Harley — and the show — comes on Jan. 18, 1993, when the episode "Harley and Ivy" airs. The story, which sees Harley befriend Poison Ivy (Diane Pershing) and break free from The Joker's control, tackles issues of domestic abuse and finding one's own identity — all on a children's TV cartoon show. An origin story comic, revealing that Harley was once Harleen Quinzel, the Joker's psychiatrist, soon followed. 

Dini: I'd done a few episodes of Harley as The Joker's assistant and you see that part of the relationship. Then I thought, let's show the flip side. Working for a villain is never a lot of fun, and as funny and as charismatic as The Joker can be, the downside is he's psychotic and nasty. Showing what Harley's life is like was very compelling. And showing her in contrast to a very strong female character such as Poison Ivy just seemed like a natural to me.

Timm: The Harley and Ivy episode was definitely one of the turning points for the character. That was the first time she at least tried get away from The Joker. Within the scope of a children's cartoon, we were basically portraying an abusive relationship, which is really weird. But all of this stuff was kind of played for fun and lightness. But there was this darker subtext to it. That was the episode where with her friendship with Poison Ivy, she was kind of encouraged to make a break from him. We played back and forth with that a bit for the next bunch of episodes with her.

Dini: In 1993 we did the origin comic Mad Love. It had been floating around in my head for a while. Who is Harley Quinn? Where did she come from? One day, Bruce and I sat down and the psychiatrist idea landed on the table and we both gravitated toward that. It's kind of a surprise to everybody. She's not just this ditzy girl The Joker picked up in a bar. She was his therapist, and this was what she became. Before this, she was very smart and driven and somehow he got into her head and twisted her. It says a lot about her and a lot about The Joker that he would manipulate her into his perfect henchperson. She made this tragic choice that defined the rest of her life and we made it more like a cautionary story. Do not love so unwisely and do not charge into something. Do not try to change yourself for someone else. That leads to tragedy. And it really added a much stronger core to the character.

Sorkin: Years later, the character was getting popular. I never would have asked for more money, except for the casting director, Andrea Romano. I was doing it for years and years and loving every second of it, and Andrea Romano said, "Arleen you can't keep doing it for scale. You've got to ask for more." And that was my only raise. I really was so grateful for it. It was so much fun for me. It wasn't for the money. It was the enjoyment of it.

Timm: Harley had a slow build. There wasn't a whole lot of Harley merchandise early on. When the first Harley action figure came out as part of the Batman: The Animated Series line, it was actually a really rare figure. You'd get a box of Batman toys at a toy store and there would be eight Batmans and five Jokers and there'd be maybe one Harley in the entire box. Now I can't believe how much Harley merchandise is out there. It's insane.

"A HAPPY ENDING"

Harley gets her own, Joker-free episode on Oct. 15, 1994 near the run of Batman: The Animated Series. "Harley's Holiday" shows Harley released from custody — only to be wrongly accused of shoplifting as a series of events lead her back to her old ways. She's eventually imprisoned again at Arkham, but it's hinted that she will be released with a clean bill of health soon. After Batman: The Animated Series ends, Harley goes on to become one of the most popular DC characters — living on in cartoons, comics, videogames and on the big screen. Sorkin retires from the role in 2011 after playing Harley Quinn in numerous iterations for two decades.

Timm: The last episode we did with her in Batman: the Animated Series didn't even have The Joker in it. Paul and I actually sat down and said, "Can we do a Harley episode that doesn't have The Joker in it?" That was kind of the challenge. In a weird kind of way, we knew our end of the series was coming up. We thought, it would be kind of nice to leave her with a happy ending. She's on parole and has made a break with The Joker. By the end of the episode, she seems like she is going okay. That was our wanting to give her a happy ending.

Sorkin: I told Paul I had played a character on the sitcom Duet (1987-1989) named Geneva. I pitched to one of the showrunners that since Geneva was a thief, why can't she think she went straight and then take a shirt that still had a tag on it, and accidentally be accused of stealing? The showrunner of Duet thought I was insane. But Paul thought it was a very good idea. So he turned it into a Harley story.  

Tara Strong (The current voice of Harley Quinn, after taking over in 2011): I was Batgirl alongside Arleen and Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Hamill when I first moved to town from Toronto. Years later, I got the call for Harley and they said, "We do not want you to do an impression from Arleen. We want you to make it your own. We want you to go to all kinds of crazy energy levels and we want this to be the new Harley."  That was daunting, because No. 1, I really love Arleen. And I was always so impressed with her acting skills, her performance, the way she stuck to this character who was just so endearing and cute. You instantly fall in love with Harley. I wanted to honor her for being the inspiration behind this role, as well as make it my own and hopefully the fans not get furious that she wasn't doing it.

Sorkin: It's thrilling for me that I did something that will live on. I'm so happy and grateful that I did it. I did a lot examples of it. I hope it helps who continues the role in the future. I still do the voice sometimes. I have a fan, a high school student named Brian McCauley, who goes to a wonderful school for the blind in Boston. I've recorded birthday songs him for after his father tracked me down.

Dini: Harley has come into her own. Now when I write Harley, I never pair her up with the Joker. She's always off by herself doing mayhem. Sometimes I pair her up with Poison Ivy and I go back to that dynamic because that's a lot of fun. To show them as pals and partners in crime.  

Timm: Looking back, ironically if I had known then what I know now about Harley's success, I probably would have said, "Get out of here you're insane." But clearly, this is the character we added to the Batman mythos who has had the most impact and longevity. I'm lucky that we caught lightning in a bottle when we did. 

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